Stanford University's 100-45 rout of the San Francisco Dons on Wednesday night was my first time seeing them in person this season.
And what stood out most might have been what was missing, even if it was only one lopsided game in which the play on the court was generally overshadowed by coach Tara VanDerveer's 800th win.
"We're trying to figure out how to play kinda with some different things without Jayne (Appel) and without Ros (Gold-Onwude)," said VanDerveer after the victory at USF.
It's possible that with forwards Nneka Ogwumike and Kayla Pedersen returning this season, people underestimated how much Appel and Gold-Onwude meant to the team last year, not to mention JJ Hones. While Gold-Onwude's graduation has left a void on the defensive end, Appel's role in facilitating offense from the high post was magnified by the Cardinal's rocky start to the game during which USF played them even.
In a way it's an unavoidable observation - last season, the Cardinal were a team that would overwhelm opponents by methodically executing their game plan and simply making less mistakes than their opponents. But really, the Cardinal's challenges this season can be described on their own terms without going through the task of making comparisons to last season.
"Right now we're trying to find ourselves and we're doing our best to come out and define ourselves from the get-go," said Ogwumike. "So I think that's what we're working out right now."
Put simply, even in establishing a huge lead on their way to a blowout against the Dons, the Cardinal never truly looked in sync and made mistakes that were not representative of "Stanford basketball". Although trying to find themselves in upcoming games against Xavier tomorrow and Connecticut on Thursday doesn't sound ideal - even at home - not surprisingly, this isn't actually about the opponent.
"Right now we're just focusing on Stanford - it's all about Stanford," said Ogwumike. "Tara said before the game whenever you go out and play you're never against opponent, you're always playing against yourselves. And we know what we're capable of doing. So we want to focus on what we can do best and hit 'em with it hard."
And where that identity crisis was most readily apparent against USF was in the turnover column.
Key statistic: Why are the Cardinal turning the ball over more often than their opponents?
It should come as a bit of a surprise that Stanford turned the ball over more often than USF on Wednesday night - the Cardinal turned the ball over 13 times (17.20% of their possessions) compared to the Dons' 11 (15% of their possessions). And they had twice as many unforced turnovers (6) in the first half as they did in the second half (3). The turnovers came from a mix of bad passes in the half court, mishandles on fast breaks, and travels.
Against USF, Stanford committed the type of turnovers that were the result of poor execution. However, that's not exactly a one-time lapse - this turnover problem is actually something of a pattern this season - Stanford is averaging 15.1 turnovers per game (18.09% of their possessions) compared to their opponents' 14.3 per game (17.34%). They did turn the ball over more often than opponents last season, but also committed less turnovers making it stand out a bit more this season.
When looking for reasons for the turnover problem, the obvious place to look is at the guard play. Although point guard Jeanette Pohlen hasn't been the most efficient ball handler this season, she has been more aggressive as a scorer and ball handler this season and she played very well in the team's losses to DePaul and Tennessee. Statistically, that's why starting Lindy La Rocque in the last two games makes sense - against USF, she was impressive with 8 assists and 1 turnover for an outstanding pure point rating of 20.63. For the season, she is the team's most efficient ball handler with a team-high 48.76% assist ratio to offset a 17.38% turnover ratio for a team-high pure point rating of 5.48.
Another place to look is that the team simply hasn't had a consistent rotation.
"This is our fifth different starting lineup," said VanDerveer of her starting lineup against USF, which included Lindy La Rocque, Kayla Pedersen, and Joslyn Tinkle along with Ogwumike and Pohlen. "Chiney was out (against USF) - she turned her ankle in practice. Kayla was out in DePaul. Nneka was out (against Utah on Nov 19). So it's just another challenge. But I think there is something to [playing] with each other. And we're looking to tweak things a little bit so tonight we tried some new things."
However, Stanford has typically been the type of team that is efficient because multiple players are able to facilitate the offense, whether that be from the high post or the wing. Appel was outstanding as a passing post player last season and the combination of her in the high post with Ogwumike in the low post was lethal. And although that's difficult to replace, it's also where Kayla Pedersen comes in.
Key player: Does the versatile Kayla Pedersen need to take on a bigger role as a distributor?
It's probably no coincidence that Stanford's two losses came with Kayla Pedersen at less than 100% - she was out for the loss to DePaul and had arguably her worse game of the season at Tennessee.
"Her nickname is 'the Rock'," said VanDerveer. "She is someone that we really depend on. We definitely needed her in Chicago. But I just feel like it's a puzzle you're always putting together and you don't even know what pieces are going to show up. Jeanette played so well the whole weekend and then tonight Kayla became more aggressive and she wanted to score and I said go for it."
At USF, Pedersen showed her all-around value to the team pulling in a career-high 20 rebounds and 16 points on 7-for-9 shooting. She can score from the perimeter, off cuts, and off rebounds. Not showing up in the box score was her ability to pick up almost any USF player on the court at any place on the court. 16 of her rebounds came on the defensive end as she played more of a low-post role than she did last year with Appel and Nneka Ogwumike operating down low more often.
Pedersen is a versatile player who can do a lot for the Cardinal. But as one of the team's most efficient distributors - particularly if you set aside her six turnover game against Tennessee - it's easy to wonder whether she might help this particular team most by playing a bigger role as a distributor from the perimeter or the high post as a direct "replacement" for Appel in the offensive scheme. Sticking her in the high post could obviously limit the impact of her versatility, but might it cut down on the turnovers?
Thus far, Pedersen is having by far her best year as a distributor with a point guard-like assist ratio of 23.42% and a pure point rating of 1.53 (better than Pohlen's or Appel from last season).
And she has played particularly well as a distributor when starting with Pohlen, the Ogwumike sisters, and Joslyn Tinkle.
Key player: What does Joslyn Tinkle add to the starting lineup over La Rocque?
Obviously, inserting Tinkle into the lineup means Pedersen definitely plays less of a role as a post player. Tinkle clearly adds size and rebounding to the lineup, though she isn't a dominant rebounder. And as a 36.3% three point shooter she creates a matchup nightmare for defenses who have to cover her, the Ogwumike sisters, and watch Pedersen, who can do a bit of everything.
The biggest difference would probably be La Rocque's passing as well as foot speed - against quicker teams, starting La Rocque would probably give the Cardinal a better chance to keep pace.
What are their chances against Xavier?
Xavier turns the ball over more often than Stanford, but also forces significantly more turnovers than Stanford. And although the two teams rebound about equally, 6-foot-6 Xavier center Ta'Shia Phillps is a better rebounder - offensive and defensive - than anyone on Stanford's roster.
But working in Stanford's favor is that they are expected to have their normal rotation back again, with Chiney Ogwumike expected back and Kayla Pedersen healthy. It's not inconceivable that come together against Xavier at full strength and pull out a win that some people might see unlikely in light of their recent losses.
"I've seen a lot of growth from our team, including tonight," said VanDerveer.